Katharine Lee loves it when people from New York come to visit Richmond and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. "They are more than just pleasantly surprised," says Lee, the museum's director. "They are dumbfounded." Dumbfounded that a city like Richmond has one of the top 20 art museums in the country and a top regional ballet company, symphony and opera.
When Lee was hired by the museum's board of directors in 1991 to assume its top post, many in the museum world were surprised that conservative Virginia has chosen a woman to head its state art museum. But just eight years later, female museum directors are becoming increasingly common, says Lee. And what most people don't realize is that Lee is actually the second woman to run the Virginia Museum. In 1942, when director Thomas Colt went off to fight in World War II, Violet Pollard filled in until he returned.
The Association of Art Museum Directors, a professional association to which Lee belongs, lists 50 female museum directors among its 160 members. Still, Lee is one of the few women to head a major regional institution with a large budget (about $15 million).
"You find that many women are running small-to-medium-size museums," she says. " ... But when it becomes one of the leading institutions in a city, with a larger budget ... [gender] begins to play a larger role in the choice of director."
She says that the female members of the Association of Art Museum Directors formed an ad hoc committee years ago and that these days there is far less talk about "getting ahead and glass ceilings," and more conversation about the unique qualities women possess.
Like the other arts leaders involved in Style's round-table discussion (Lee couldn't attend the discussion because she was in France), Lee agrees that a woman's style of leadership usually differs from a man's. While men are more focused on things like attendance figures, women are more interested in communicating, delegating, negotiating and making their employees feel valued "much better reasons than hiring a woman just trying to prove a political point," Lee says.
Lee has never been one for making political statements herself. Her deep and true love of art is what has led her to her current position at the Virginia Museum, not any desire to prove that a woman could handle the job.
Lee, the daughter of internationally esteemed art historian Sherman Lee, the long-time director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, grew up surrounded by art. She received an undergraduate degree in art history from Vassar and a master's from Harvard. She gradually worked her way up in the art world through curatorial jobs and, in 1986, became the deputy director at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago.
"I didn't have ambitions until late in my career to be a director," says Lee, 58. "In Chicago, the director is exactly my age. I would have had to wait around for a long time to become the director. ... I really did want to try my hand at running a museum."
And, since 1991, she has had the chance to do just that in Virginia. While Lee says she has never felt like being a woman has held her back, she does think being a woman has worked to her benefit in some areas. She believes it helps her better relate to the museum's many female volunteers. "They are not just free help," she says. "This is their lives ... they want to be valued. They know I respect what they're doing and we've gotten along very well."
Lee believes women in the art world "are well past having to prove a point. It's quite unfashionable and unacceptable to make a point of being a woman these days."
Instead, Lee concentrates on her job at the museum and what she loves best: art. "Visual things and beautiful things and communicating about them was something I always just loved," she says. "That's been true as long as I can
Style Weekly's mission is to provide smart, witty and tenacious coverage of Richmond. Our editorial team strives to reveal Richmond's true identity through unflinching journalism, incisive writing, thoughtful criticism, arresting photography and sophisticated presentation.
We make sense of the news; pursue those in power; explore the city's arts and culture; open windows on provocative ideas; and help readers know Richmond through its people. We give readers the information to make intelligent decisions.